TVstuff: Disable the Cable?

“Don’t panic.”

That’s what the Time-Warner Northeast Ohio customer service representative told me this morning. I think she was mistaking the irritation in my voice for fear. I’ve been a Time-Warner Cable television customer for all of 70 hours and already I’ve had to call customer service; this does not bode particularly well for our burgeoning relationship.

At issue: the Viacom debacle. As near as I can figure it, Viacom wants to wring more money out of Time-Warner for channels like Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and MTV. Because apparently people still watch MTV. Time-Warner, naturally, doesn’t want to shell out the dough, claiming that they’d have to (surprise!) raise their rates.

This morning, Viacom decided that negotiations weren’t going to cut it, so they resorted to something akin to extortion: a crawl across the bottom of their networks imploring Time-Warner customers to contact their cable provider if they didn’t want to lose shows like SpongeBob Squarepants when the ball drops in Times Square. ((Happy New Year!))

At the International House of Johnson we do occasionally watch SpongeBob Squarepants, but losing The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report would be a deal-breaker. We rarely watch anything else on Comedy Central, because 90% of the programming on Comedy Central is crap, but The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are pretty much the only two shows that Laura and I watch together.

The Viacom crawl is, in my opinion, hitting below the belt as far as negotiations are concerned. It’s certainly not unprecedented, but it’s kind of a dirty trick. Viacom is essentially threatening to take their ball and go home if Time-Warner doesn’t play the game to their liking, but their crawl makes Time-Warner out to be the bad guy. According to one source, the price hike Viacom wants is triple the increase from their previous contract with Time-Warner, which translates (per Viacom) to roughly 25 cents per month per Time-Warner Cable subscriber. ((Time-Warner claims that this could set a precedent for other networks to demand higher rates and result in a $30-per-year increase for customers.)) The crawl, quite naturally, fails to mention any of this.

But the crawl is effective. Laura asked me about it first thing this morning, as she’s not at all keen to lose Nickelodeon or Comedy Central, so I thought I’d give Time-Warner a call. The number provided in the crawl was experiencing “technical difficulties”, which I took to mean “a flood of calls from angry parents whose children want to watch SpongeBob tomorrow”.

At this point, I know that Viacom is playing dirty, but I called Time-Warner Northeast Ohio anyway. I was greeted with an automated message assuring me that negotiations to keep the Viacom networks were underway and wouldn’t I please just hang up because that’s all they could tell me.

Unfortunately for Time-Warner, they’re the new kid on the block as far as television providers in the International House of Johnson are concerned, and I was already annoyed to discover that having a digital cable box and subscribing to “extended basic” service is not the same as having “digital basic” service. ((Translation: Our current service plan does not include Noggin (another Viacom network, the one that features all of Kyle’s favorite shows), BBC America or the basic OnDemand features.)) Oh, and their installer was 30 minutes late on Monday.

So I waited on hold for a customer service representative. Poor Barbara got a bit of an earful as I explained that, should the Viacom networks disappear from my lineup, Time-Warner’s reign as the television provider in my house would be a very, very short one. My DirecTV receiver is still active ((In fact, the television was tuned to Noggin on DirecTV when Laura saw the Viacom crawl this morning.)) and my digital phone service has yet to be installed, so it’s just a matter of who I call Monday morning to inform them that their services will no longer be required.

I’m not panicking, I’m just annoyed that—having been a satellite television subscriber for seven years with only two issues that I can recall—I switched to cable and wound up on the phone with customer service after less than three days.

UPDATE: Time-Warner CEO, Glenn Britt has issued a statement. Additionally, Viacom has allegedly threatened to block Time-Warner Cable Internet subscribers from accessing their free online content, such as episodes of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

UPDATE: It certainly appears that Viacom is planning to block Time-Warner Cable Internet subscribers, if the pop-ups on sites like MTV.com are any indication. So, even though I currently put pennies in Viacom’s pocket because I’m still paying for DirecTV, because my Internet access is through Time-Warner I won’t be able to access free content on ComedyCentral.com. (I’ve seen the pop-up myself on that very site.) That’s really playing dirty, Viacom.

FINAL UPDATE (01 January 2009): Well, it looks like Time-Warner Cable and Viacom have reached a “an agreement in principle“, which means 13 million households can spend New Year’s Day in Bikini Bottom after all. As an aside, if one of your New Year’s resolutions was “no cable rate hikes”, you’re probably going to be breaking that one sooner than you expected.

Movie Review: The Spirit (2008)

The Spirit (2008)The Spirit (2008)

Starring Gabriel Macht, Eva Mendes, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Louis Lombardi, Jaime King, Paz Vega, Sarah Paulson, Stana Katic and Kevin Arnold’s dad.

Directed by Frank Miller.

Confession time: I have never read Will Eisner’s The Spirit.

I’m glad I got that off my chest, even though my Geek Cred may have taken a bit of a hit, especially with my Comic Book Geek brethren. I should point out, however, that I don’t consider my dearth of experience with the character (and Eisner’s work in general) a drawback when it comes to the Frank Miller-directed film version of The Spirit. In fact, my nigh-complete ignorance of The Spirit and his exploits gives me a singular advantage over True Fans: I didn’t just watch a character near and dear to my heart ruined on the big screen. ((That will have to wait until Captain America: The First Avenger premieres in 2010.))

As a non-Spirit-fan, I actually had high hopes for Frank Miller’s film. I enjoyed the visual style, characters and story of Sin City (which Miller wrote and co-directed) as well as the spectacle that was 300 (directed by Zack Snyder, but based on a Miller graphic novel), so I expected that unleashing Miller’s style on The Spirit would be a lot of fun.

Visually, I was not disappointed. The Spirit has a very similar look to Sin City: mostly dark with (sometimes shocking) splashes of rich, vibrant color, the end result is something that looks like it jumped straight off the pages of a gritty graphic novel. ((Such as, say, Sin City.)) Every frame is a treat for the eyes, masterfully assembled with strategically-placed, high-contrast elements that bring an almost surreal sense of depth to two dimensions.

And then they had to go and screw up the whole beautiful tapestry by adding characters and a plot.

Gabriel Macht as The Spirit is…forgettable. There’s not really a whole lot going on behind the domino mask that’s going to leave much of an impression. He performs a running monologue in gravelly tones ((As an aside, it was one of these monologues that really drove home just how discombobulated The Spirit is. Here’s our hero, walking through the muck after an encounter with The Octopus, looking stern while his inner voice complains about the bitter cold wind of the city stinging his face…and around him snow drifts gently to the ground, not even the slightest breeze disturbing the flakes as they fall.)) and occasionally drops a line that was good enough to make it into the trailer, but beyond that…well, I guess he looks okay without a shirt on, but that’s not really a big selling point for me.

Eva Mendes as Sand Serif is pretty much the same as Eva Mendes as every other hot dame she’s played: a whole lot of eye candy that turns out to be nothing but empty calories. ((See also: Ghost Rider.)) The woman looks good, and the high-contrast visual style accentuates every curve of her body. Unfortunately, Sand Serif is a speaking role, and that’s where the whole thing falls apart.

I’d expect a wooden performance from Eva Mendes, but I hold Scarlett Johansson to a higher standard, which made her wooden performance all the more disappointing, especially since she wasn’t given anywhere near the camera-fondling Miller gave Mendes (and Paz Vega, whose part and costume were both quite small). Johansson, as Silken Floss, has the unfortunate distinction of sharing nearly every scene she’s in with one Samuel L. Jackson, and perhaps that’s why she comes across as a little stiff.

Time for another confession: Samuel L. Jackson is pretty much the only reason I ventured out at 10:30pm on Christmas to see The Spirit. I have a lot of respect for Mr. Jackson because he will agree to do a role just because it sounds like fun; ((See also: Snakes on a Plane.)) and it’s not difficult to see that Sam Jackson is having all kinds of fun playing The Octopus. But I’m not sure Frank Miller told Samuel L. Jackson what kind of movie he was making. This may have something to do with the fact that I suspect Frank Miller did not know what kind of movie he was making. Based solely on The Octopus, I would classify The Spirit as camp, approaching pure farce; and if that’s what the movie was supposed to be I wouldn’t have a problem with the over-the-top campiness of Jackson’s performance.

Except that Samuel L. Jackson is the only person gobbling up scenes like a starving man at the Hometown Buffet. To make matters worse, The Octopus goes through more wardrobe changes than Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde 3: I Can’t Believe They’re Still Making Sequels to Legally Blonde. The Octopus is first a pimp, then (for no apparent reason) a samurai, then a doctor/scientist, then (again, for no reason) a monocle-wearing Nazi General, then a pimp with a smaller hat than the first pimp. His on-screen antics elicited various audience members to blurt out on not one, not two, but three separate occasions, “What the [expletive]?” It’s fun to watch the man enjoy himself, but at some point you can’t help but wonder if he realizes that there are people making a movie around him.

And then there’s Morgenstern, the rookie cop played by Stana Katic. For reasons known only to…well, hell, probably no one, she speaks at roughly twice the volume of everyone around her. After the first two lines, I was reminded of Steve Carell’s character in Anchorman, who blurted out “Loud noises!” and “I love lamp!”, but at least he had an excuse for yelling: everyone else was, too.

Add characters that seem relatively normal (Ellen Dolan, played by Sarah Paulson, possibly the only truly sane person in the entire film) and those that are never really explained (Lorelei, played by Jaime King, some sort of Death-spirit who may or may not be entirely a figment of The Spirit’s imagination), and those that are just plain bizarre (Logos, Pathos, Ethos and many more, all played by Louis Lombardi), a hopping foot-head (that’s not a typo) and a scene that gives new mean to the term “rib-sticking”, and The Spirit is a giant mess that just can’t decide what it’s supposed to be. All kinds of nice to look at, but that’s about it.

Christmas Loot 2008

It’s become something of a tradition to enumerate my Christmas loot, so here we go:

  • More Information Than You Require by John HodgmanMore Information Than You Require by John Hodgman. I was fortunate enough to obtain the audio version of Hodgman’s previous book, The Areas of My Expertise, when it was offered as a free download from iTunes a while back. Now I’ve got the second volume of COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE and have already begun to educate myself on matters of United States Presidents who had hooks for hands, PROGNOSTICATION by means of pig spleen ((I believe the technical term is “splenology”.)) and the largely unsung PRECIPITATION WAR between Richmond, VA and Milwaukee, WI. This particular volume is not yet available in audio format (free or otherwise), and so I am forced to enjoy it in WRETCHED HARDCOVER, an inconvenience I suffer gladly, for Mr. Hodgman’s wit is dry and the knowledge he imparts nigh-indispensible. ((Imparting indispensible knowledge may seem at best highly improbable and at worst practically impossible, but I daresay John Hodgman manages it with nothing less than panache as smooth as goose liver paté.)) In the brief span of time since I tore away the festive holiday wrapping ((This is an exaggeration; it was actually festive white tissue paper.)) to reveal the earth-tones of the cover of More Information Than You Require, I have read approximately half of the book and already my brain threatens to burst.
  • In the Company of Ogres by A. Lee MartinezIn the Company of Ogres by A. Lee Martinez. I have my sights set on reading The Automatic Detective, another novel by A. Lee Martinez, but I am determined to read all of the novels which preceded it first, and in the order in which they were published. This despite the fact that The Automatic Detective is not a sequel, but a standalone work. I have already completed Gil’s All Fright Diner, a tale that apparently received some accolade in the realm of Young Adult fiction, ((I am not at all certain that Gil’s All Fright Diner—fraught as it is with profanity, obscenity and no small amount of sexual content—ought to be marketed to the Young Adult audience, but it might go over well with the Young-at-Heart Adult audience.)) and am looking forward to both In the Company of Ogres and A Nameless Witch, followed inevitably by The Automatic Detective.
  • The Hood of the Ninja. There may be another name for this 4-in-1 convertible hood (which can assume the form of a scarf, muzzle, hood or balaclava), but I don’t believe to call it anything else would be appropriate. I briefly considered posting a photo of myself wearing the hood, but that plan was set aside when I realized that donning the garment renders me invisible.
  • Filthy lucre. There are those who find gifts of money impersonal and in poor taste, but I do not count myself among them, particularly when I am trying to accumulate the funds necessary to purchase an Xbox 360. ((Which I am.))

My young apprentice shall henceforth be known as “El Tigre”, for indeed he made out like a bandit. Here is but a sampling of the gifts he received:

  • Frosty the Snowman. This DVD includes the inferior 1992 sequel, Frosty Returns, featuring John Goodman as the old-silk-hatted snowman and Jonathan Winters as the narrator. ((I have nothing but respect for Mr. Winters, but he is no Jimmy Durante.)) Worse yet, there is a trailer for another sequel, this one produced in 2005 and titled Legend of Frosty the Snowman. I admit to a certain amount of curiosity with regard to Legend, if only because Burt Reynolds assumes the role of narrator.
  • Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed Game. “Elusive” is the word that most describes this game. We searched multiple Toys R Usses, ((Yes, “Usses”.)) Wals*Mart and Targéts without success before finding a single copy at Joseph Beth Booksellers. The game is adapted from a popular children’s rhyme which tells the tale of five foolish simians, a coil-spring mattress and a pediatrician whose advice goes unheeded. It is not for the faint of heart.
  • The Amazing Spider-Man Bop BagThe Amazing Spider-Man Bop Bag. I admit that after I inflated the bop bag to its full 48″, ((Height, not girth.)) I gave it a couple of whacks to express my displeasure with the wall-crawler for Spider-Man 3. ((Where is your spider-sense now, web-slinger? Where is your spider-sense now?)) I did this only because Santa Claus lacked the foresight to bring me an inflatable Sam Raimi bop bag.
  • Buzz Lightyear. A recent interest in the Toy Story movies revealed that, though we own a Sheriff Woody doll, the delusional Space Ranger with an “impressive wingspan” who becomes Woody’s boon companion was nowhere to be found in the International House of Johnson. This deficit has now been corrected.
  • Fisher Price Easy Link. This device, which connects to a computer via USB port, allows a toddler to gain access to certain web-based activites, while ostensibly preventing said toddler from accessing the Intertubes as a whole or the computer’s local hard drive. Though I was impressed with how quickly my young apprentice took to the mouse, I am less than thrilled to report that he has yet to circumvent the Easy Link’s security. Perhaps it is time for he and I to sit down for a movie marathon; Hackers, Sneakers and Swordfish, for starters, followed by TRON and that one scene from Jurassic Park. ((“It’s a UNIX system! I know this!”)) The boy needs some skillz.

Prior to the arrival of Christmas, we received a gift basket of Wolferman‘s Very Tasty® Brand ((This is not the actual brand name, though the muffins are, in fact, Very Tasty.)) English Muffins and Red Tart Cherry fruit spread. As I write this, I am enjoying one of the Apple Orchard variety with cream cheese, and Kyle has stopped by to beg several bites. He is very lucky that I am infused with the Christmas spirit, as I would normally send him out into the streets to earn his supper by pickpocketing wealthy merchants.

Finally, I should mention that Laura received the HBO miniseries John Adams on DVD. ((She also received an iPod Nano, but for reasons I cannot begin to comprehend opted not to have me transfer the DVDs to the Nano rather than watch them on our television. I just don’t understand women.)) I should mention this because I believe she propped her eyes open a la Alex in A Clockwork Orange so that she could watch all 501 minutes before St. Nicholas parked his sizeable posterior in his La-Z-Boy to begin planning next year’s delivery route.

Merry Christmas to all.

TVstuff: Ditching the Dish

After more than seven years with DirecTV, the International House of Johnson will switch to cable television next week. Why? The bundle. Time-Warner is offering us some fairly significant savings if we bundle our phone, Internet and television services, which we currently get through MCI, Time-Warner and DirecTV, respectively. ((The bulk of the savings will come from switching the phone service, but we’ll get a slight discount on the Internet and television services as well.))

I’m a little trepidatious about the switch, especially because I really have no major complaints about DirecTV service and I’ve got a slew of movies on the DVR that I haven’t gotten around to watching yet:

  • Live Free or Die Hard
  • Meet the Robinsons
  • The Invasion
  • Larva
  • Beneath Loch Ness
  • Raging Sharks

Speaking of the DVR, I neglected to ask the customer service representative what the capacity of the Time-Warner DVR is; I’ve gotten used to having 100 hours to play with and I’ll be a little disappointed if that drops to 35 hours, which was the capacity of our original DirecTiVo.

On the other hand, I’m looking forward to On-Demand programming, which wasn’t an option on DirecTV unless we significantly upgraded our service and equipment. If there are enough On-Demand titles too keep a certain young apprentice happy, I may never have to record an episode of LazyTown again. ((Which is not to say I don’t like LazyTown. Like most of the shows Kyle enjoys, it has its own special, freaky charm. I give Stefan Karl, who plays Robbie Rotten, a lot of credit for being a very entertaining physical actor; he’s also a surprisingly good-looking guy under the prosthetics.))

The other thing I’m a little nervous about is giving up our POTS. The Time-Warner bundle includes their branded VOIP service, and as with any Internet phone service if you don’t gots Internets, you don’t gots a phone. Thankfully, I can think of only two times in the past year when our cable Internet service was out, and one of them was for less than 30 minutes.

We’ll make the dish-to-cable transition on Monday (provided all goes well) and the POTS-to-VOIP transition in early January. The latter is delayed because MCI requires notification thirteen business days in advance of switching service provideds, which I think is just ludicrous.

HoNoToGroABeMo 2008: Adam’s Beard

Here we have a late entry to How Not To Grow a Beard Month, my younger brother, Adam. He’s not late because he didn’t participate right along with the rest of us, but because I’ve been too lazy to post the photos he sent me until today. But rather than post every single picture, I decided to do an animated progression, starting with Day Zero and proceeding through Day Nineteen (he has yet to send me the remaining eleven days).

The thumbnail below links to an animated GIF, which weighs in at just over 1MB. If you’ve got a slow connection, it’ll take a while to load.

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Once I receive the remaining photos, I’ll update the animation. I estimate that it took me about two hours to scale, rotate and align the individual frames of this animation, but I think it was well worth it to demonstrate that someone in my family can grow a decent beard.

Gamestuff: Enter Ye Olde Fartz

Not too long ago, I rebuilt my PC, swapping out the old Intel 850GB motherboard and 1.7 GHz Pentium 4 processor for an ECS Elitegroup GF7100PVT-M3 motherboard and a dual-core Pentium E2180 2 GHz CPU. I also bumped my RAM up from 1 GB to 3 GB ((The onboard NVIDIA GeForce 7100 GPU commandeers 256MB of RAM, leaving the system with 2.75GB.)) and traded my tired, old Maxtor EIDE hard drives for a 500 GB Western Digital SATA drive. I eschewed the motherboard’s built-in audio in favor of  my Sound Blaster Audigy because I’d been using Firewire to synchronize my iPod and didn’t feel like digging around for the USB cable.

Thusly upgraded, I then proceeded to install a slew of games that ran just (or at least mostly) fine on the old PC.

  • Command & Conquer: Generals
  • Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
  • Freedom Force
  • Homeworld
  • Unreal Tournament 2004
  • WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos

WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos (PC)When Sam Chupp got wind via Twitter that I’d installed WarCraft III, he suggested that we play online sometime. We played a game in which we joined forces against what we could only assume were two twelve-year-old boys and were soundly trounced.

The following week, we opted to stay away from the hordes of clearly superior yet entirely anonymous players and set up a private game. Thus were the seeds of Ye Olde Fartz sown. Soon we were joined by Jay “Kingfish” Lynn,  Gus (AKA The Bearded Goose) and (when he wasn’t too busy getting paid to play games on his Xbox 360) Ken Newquist. The WarCraft III game became a weekly event, a three- or four-player free-for-all battle between Orcs, Humans, Night Elves and the gruesome Undead.

After a few weeks of real-time strategy, ((Wherein I kicked some serious ass, most nights.)) Sam suggested that we try another favorite game of mine, Neverwinter Nights. And so, this past Thursday—after about an hour and a half of patches, critical fixes and reinstalls—Ye Olde Fartz began a cooperative roleplaying adventure. We’re playing what the kids on the Intertubes call the “OC”, or “Original Campaign”, but I know that Sam has something up his sleeve he’d like to try, so after we’ve cured the mysterious plague that is…uh…plaguing…the city of Neverwinter, we’ll move on to Sam’s home-brewed module. As Sam has significant game design experience, I have no doubt that the story he cooks up will be both memorable and fun to play. ((No pressure, Sam.))

Now if I can just convince them all to play Crimson Skies